The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Georgetown political theorist Jason Brennan—a leading academic critic of compulsory voting and coauthor of Compulsory Voting: For And Against—has a good post rebutting some of the arguments underpinning President Obama's recent advocacy of the idea. As I noted in my own critique of Obama's view, compulsory voting is likely to exacerbate the already severe problem of political ignorance. Jason's post focuses on one of the arguments most often advanced by left of center supporters of compulsory voting: the claim that it would benefit the interests of the poor and disadvantaged.
As he points out, political science research suggests that the partisan preferences of American nonvoters differ very little from those of people who vote in the status quo. Internationally, compulsory voting also has only relatively minor effects on partisan outcomes. It sometimes provides a modest boost to left-wing parties, but also is often a modest boon to far-right nationalist and racist parties. The political views of non-voters, however, do differ somewhat from those of people who do vote—but often in ways that American liberals would not be happy about.
In part because nonvoters tend to be less educated and more ignorant about politics than voters, they also tend to be more xenophobic, intolerant of racial and religious minorities, and more homophobic. They are more economically populist, as well, which translates into support for a larger welfare state, but also for various policies that go against basic economics 101 (including as understood by leading left-wing economists). If compulsory voting leads politicians to pay greater heed to the views of this group, the result will be policies that are more socially intolerant, more likely to be based on ignorance of economics, and more hostile to unpopular minority groups.
If there is any ideology that stands benefit from compulsory voting, it is relatively intolerant strains of big government social conservatism (the kinds of ideas associated with, e.g., Rick Santorum or Pat Buchanan in the US, or the National Front in France). If you are a liberal who believes that the most important goal is increasing the size of the welfare state or promoting protectionism against foreign imports, you might be willing to swallow the bile of increased social conservatism and xenophobia in order to make some progress on your primary goal. But you should at least recognize that this tradeoff exists. Moreover, because non-voters tend to be more ignorant than current voters and the ignorant tend to have less understanding of how government policies work, welfare state policies enacted at the behest of the former are less likely to be effective and more likely to be captured by special interest groups.
The impact of compulsory voting on public policy probably will not be large. Even when they do vote, people with very low levels of interest in politics tend to have less influence than more attentive voters. Because they don't closely monitor the performance of politicians in office and often have little idea of what policies are being enacted, the latter can more often get away with ignoring their preferences. The effect of compulsory voting on party platform and government policy in the US is therefore likely to be modest—not the large "transformative" impact President Obama posited in his speech on Wednesday. But to the extent there is a transformation, it is likely to be one that liberals should have mixed feelings about, at best.
Perhaps matters would be different if forcing relatively ignorant people to vote led them to increase their knowledge of politics. But, as Jason emphasizes, social science research suggests that such a result is highly unlikely. That's hardly surprising. If you generally find politics uninteresting and prefer to spend your time on other things (or simply have to focus your attention elsewhere because of familial or professional obligations), that preference is unlikely to change just because you are forced to go to the polls once every two years. As longtime British Prime Mininster Tony Blair once put it, "most people, most of the time, don't give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…., before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock 'n' roll." This is particularly true of those who don't find politics interesting for its own sake, which includes many of those who currently don't vote.
Finally, even if, due to the current distribution of public opinion, compulsory voting will bring public policy more in line with your preferences, you should still ask whether that result is worth the cost of saddling the nation with a more ignorant electorate in the long run. Even if comparatively ignorant voters happen to support better policies than more knowledgeable ones right now, it seems unlikely that this trend will continue over the long run. In Chapter 2 of my book on political ignorance, I discuss some situations where ignorance really does lead to (relative) bliss. But it would be extremely surprising if such cases turn out to be the rule rather than the exception.
UPDATE: Interested readers may also want to check out Jason's more general summary of his argument against compulsory voting in this post.
UPDATE #2: I should emphasize that neither this post nor my other writings on compulsory voting and political ignorance take the view that non-voters are necessarily either stupid or indifferent to the welfare of society. I have long argued that political ignorance is mostly the result of individually rational behavior rather than stupidity. And, as I pointed out in my last post on mandatory voting, there are many ways that people can contribute to society other than by being well-informed voters. Non-voters aren't necessarily either stupid or selfish. Some are likely far smarter and more admirable than the vast majority of their fellow citizens. But their relative political ignorance does become a problem if they start voting without remedying it (as is likely to occur if we move to a mandatory voting system).